Greetings from Heaven

Well . . . maybe not paradise exactly, but certainly something closer to it than Albany as we transition from old, dirty snow season to mud season.

I am typing from Asheville, North Carolina, at my sister’s house. Katelin and I shot down for a quick visit while she’s home from school. It’s close to 80 degrees today, the pear trees out back are in spectacular spring bloom, crocuses are popping up all over, and there’s nary a speck of ice or snow to be seen anywhere close by. I’m sitting barefoot, in shorts and t-shirt, in front of an open window, with all the doors open, bees flying around the yard, birds chirping, etc. It’s very, very nice. Something like late May where we live.

Asheville is a magnificent city, and my sister’s home is in an astonishing neighborhood, less than 100 yards from the famed Grove Park Inn, the roofs of which I can see out the window in front of me as I type. Housing lots here often have more vertical gain than horizontal width across their street fronts, and it’s interesting to see the architecture that such construction challenges present.

My sister and her husband are at work today, and their children are still in school, so Katelin and I are preparing dinner for the family tonight: I’m making ropa vieja with black beans and rice, Katelin is making a trifle (which she pronounces “triffle” with a short “i,” no matter how often one corrects her).

My mom is up from South Carolina visiting, too, but she’s down for the count right now: she accidentally took at Tylenol PM this morning at about 9 AM instead of her proper medication. Oopsy. She would have me let you know, though, that it was an honest mistake, because I was talking to her while she was taking her pills and distracted her, and it’s not a sign of dementia or other age-related issues. (Which is actually true).

The warmth has anesthetized the household animals as well: my mother’s cinder-block shaped dog snoozes with her, while my sister’s herding dog and rat-shaped doglette doze in the living room. The cats are laying in the dirt under the bushes out back, and Katelin just stuck her head in to say that the triffle was done, and she was going to go lay down on the patio and read.

Come to think of it . . . a nap’s probably not such a bad idea, is it?

Odds and Sods

I have a test on Monday. I wish I didn’t. I’m too old and seasoned to get “test anxiety,” per se. What I get is more like “test resentment.” You mean . . . it’s not enough that I absorb the information presented in class and texts? You want me to prove it? By regurgitating it back to you? Sigh.

This testing/proof process is probably the hardest part of graduate school for me. I’m used to working long, weird hours. I’m used to reading and writing far more than most people probably do, possibly to the point of obsessiveness. Those elements of graduate school are just like the kinds of night-time based freelance writing and research work I’ve done for years and year.

But there’s something discomforting about having to go sit in a classroom for three hours, in a desk that’s far too small for my body (6’3″, 215 pounds, with a bad shoulder and a back that doesn’t handle non-ergonomic chairs very well), being handed a blue book and issued the same warnings about “eyes on your own papers” that I first heard in elementary school, four-odd decades ago. I understand the need to do it . . . but I don’t like doing it, not one bit.

I am planning on taking a couple of courses over the summer, with the goal of finishing the degree this December. It will be tough, but it’s important to me to finish it . . . and to do so before the testing/proving process gets too uncomfortable and borderline humilating to endure further.

Today, I picked Katelin up for her two week break. We’re going to Asheville, North Carolina for a few days next week to see my mother, my sister and her family. Should be nice. I’ve also been enjoying watching the first couple of days of the NCAA Hoops Tourney. Note well: I picked Winthrop (beat Notre Dame), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (led by 18 points over #2 seed Wisconsin at one point, before finally succumbing), Wright State (won the MVC, but lost in the first round of the NCAA’s) and Akron (shamefully excluded from post-season play) as my underdog sleepers. At least one of them’s still in play . . . and one of them earned the same sort of “almost did it” respect that Albany got last year when they pushed UConn to the limit as a #16 seed.

Finally, as I look out my home office window at the Nor’easter turning my backyard into a swirling white chaos, I realize that I probably posted the “Thaw” poem too soon. Maybe this is more appropriate for today . . .

Freeze

Outside, we can tell the air itself is thickening,
while we ponder cold weather wear we’re ordering
from fall catalogs, the rate of cooling quickening
with the first frost freezing hard the backyard bordering,
the once green growth succumbing to nature’s savaging,
organic ice orchards wilting first then splintering.
By night, we hear the winds all whistling and ravaging,
and know that before we’re ready, we’ll all be wintering.

(Poem Copyright 2004, JES)

Three Poems Published . . .

. . . in Albany Poets’ Other:Seven poetry quarterly: “Slow Motion Sleep,” “Trepang,” and “Codex.” All of them available if you click my name once you get to that linked page. (Click the other names, too, because there’s some fine work to be seen). It’s always nice to get work out in a format that involves ink as well as pixels!

Sporting Injustice of the Highest Magnitude

Akron went 26-7 overall and finished the season with a Ratings Percentage Index of 66.

They went 13-3 in the Mid-America Conference (MAC), a mature, stable league that has spawned multiple Sweet 16 teams in the past. While Akron had the best overall record among the MAC’s 12 teams, they finished one game behind Toledo (19-12 overall, but 14-2 in the MAC) in the conference standings. Toledo got the MAC’s automatic NIT bid as a result.

Akron also lost the MAC Championship Game to Miami (OH) by one point on a last second miracle three-point shot. Miami got the MAC’s automatic NCAA bid as a result.

Still . . . with a 66 RPI, and 64 teams going to the NCAA Tournament, and 32 more going to the NIT (96 total), it seems pretty obvious that Akron should still be playing, right?

Not to the NCAA and NIT selection committees, it didn’t.

What an awful decision. What an unfortunate slight to a really accomplished college team.

I won’t write any more about the selection process after this post . . . but suffice to say that I’ve been really actively following NCAA Men’s Basketball for the better part of 30+ years, and I can’t recall a time when the post-season selection results were as poor, “Big Six” money conference biased, and unfair as they were this year.

Anti-Fan Mail

I woke early this morning, got my coffee, and fired up the computron to see how things were going in the NCAA Hoops Conference Tournaments (Nice! My picks Akron and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi both advanced) and to check my e-mail.

Hmm . . . I didn’t recognize the name on one with the subject “FROM A CRITIC READ,” but it didn’t trip the spam filter, so I opened it. Among an array of angry spinning animated emoticons, I read a missive that included such bon mots (profanity edited for this family newspaper’s website) as . . .

“Just want to tell you that opinions are just like a** h***s like youre self, everybodys got one.”

and . . .

“Just read youre article on the web about which rock band you think was the worst. It seems to me you just don’t like f***ing music. You said that boston s***ed, youre g***amn tone def.”

and . . .

“WISH YOU WERE HERE SO I COULD F***IN SPIT IN YOURE FACE YOU G***AMN B***ARD FROM HELL………….”

and . . .

“OH AND BY THE WAY, YOU SUCK……………..”

and then, more cryptically . . .

“GOD BLESS YOU BRAD, WE LOVE YOU BUDDY”

Sigh. I wish I could say this was the first (and last) piece of e-mail I’d received like this, but I’d be lying. My 2004 blog piece, The Worst Rock Band Ever: A Detailed Survey of Popular Badness, generates an astounding amount of reader feedback, 90% of which comes in a more profane form of “Dear Loser, [My Favorite Band] is great, and you are stupid. I want to hurt you.”

Generally, I can tell which bands are in the news by the hate mail I receive. For instance, when the original Motley Crue line-up reunited to tour a couple of years back, their fans were having mass Googlefests for news about their faves, which brought up a lot of hits for my Worst Band page, which brought in a whole lot of angry e-mail, much of it shouted IN ALL CAPS with LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sadly, I learned upon further research that this morning’s piece of hate mail was probably generated by someone Googling Boston lead singer Brad Delp, who was found dead Friday in his home. That explained the cryptic coda to this morning’s missive. Tough news for a fan, for sure, as well as for Delp’s family, friends and loved ones. I know there will be a lot of community grieving among the band’s inner and extended families.

It’s just sort of interesting to me that someone’s act of grieving involved sending a piece of hate mail to a stranger, inspired by a three year old article that, as I re-read it this morning to see how offensive it might have been, was actually pretty pro-Delp and anti-Tom Scholz, Boston’s calculating technical mastermind. I suppose he was in the anger stage, and I was an easy, convenient target. No harm done. No hurt feelings. I get it.

I expect I’ll be receiving some more correspondence as news of Delp’s passing spreads. I don’t imagine that much of it will be nice. I periodically mull taking the “Worst Bands” page offline, since I’m actually much prouder of the Rock’s Greatest Secret Band or Best of the Blockbusters or March of the Mellotrons pages. But then I look at my website’s search query log, and I see that my top ten referring searches this month (and pretty much every other month since 2004) are:

1. worst band ever

2. the worst band ever

3. worst bands

4. worst bands ever

5. boston rock band

6. worst bands

7. worst rock band ever

8. arctic cat snowmobile

9. worst band of all time

10. rock band boston

So for better or for worse, the Worst Bands stuff is my Interweb bread and butter. While some folks hit it and never move deeper into my site (except to look for my e-mail if they’re mad enough to post), some folks do find the other stuff (hopefully even including this new blog) . . . and it’s worth enduring the e-mail bombs to get the occasional thoughtful or though-provoking reactions from those people as well.

Here’s hoping some of them rise to the occasion to blunt the expected Boston Fan Barrage that I expect over the next week or two . . .

Sixteen Sweet, Sweet Years

Sixteen years ago this morning, my lovely daughter Katelin was born at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland . . . on my lovely wife Marcia’s own birthday.

I was still an active duty Naval Supply Officer at the time, and Marcia had just left the Navy a few months before Katelin was born. We lived in Alexandria (in Northern Virginia), but since we were dependent on the Navy for health care, we had to go where they offered it: which was on the complete other side of the Beltway from our home. There were two ways to get from here to there: straight across the City (shorter, but with lots of bumps in the road and start/stop situations), or around the Beltway itself (longer, smoother, faster . . . except during rush-hour, when gridlock prevailed). We decided to play it situationally when the time came.

Marcia was almost two weeks overdue as March began, and plans were being discussed to induce labor when nature, in her always mischievous way, got the proverbial ball rolling late in the evening before Marcia’s birthday. Given the hour, we opted for the Beltway run to Bethesda . . . and it felt like the longest, most white-knuckled drive of my life.

We did, ultimately, make it to the Naval Hospital without me having to play amateur field obstetrician in the back seat of our car, and Marcia was whisked into delivery, for what turned out to be a very long, hard labor. It wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Bethesda is a teaching hospital, meaning that Marcia endured a long line of Doctors-in-the-Making passing through her room, practicing their bedside manner, picking up charts and looking at machines and sagely nodding “mmm HMMM,” and asking the same questions over and over again through the evening.

In the end, of course, all worked out as it was meant to, and we found ourselves holding this amazing little wriggling pink person, as our heretofore binary relationship expanded to be a trinity. I wept in the delivery room, literally struck down and overcome with an overwhelming sense of awe, relief and love. I still get trembly-chinned when I think about it, and it absolutely boggles my mind to think that it was 16 years ago, and that the little pink wriggler is now a tall, smart, personable and beautiful young lady.

What changes the three of us have been through during that time! We moved cross country to Idaho when Katelin was but three months old, driving the whole way. We drove back East two years later when my job required me to go to Schenectady. Marcia got her law degree at Albany Law, graduating very near the top of her class, no mean feat while also mothering a toddler. I left the government and began working in the nonprofit sector. We bought a house (our third, and the first one that has proven to be a smart investment). Marcia started working at one law firm, moved to her current firm a couple of years later, made partner several years after that. I switched jobs once. Twice. Three times. Hosted a TV show. Wrote for a newspaper. Katelin went to a private school for kindergarten and first grade, then shifted to public school for eight years, then went back to private school this year . . . as a boarding student, a whole new level of independence.

There are still but the three of us in the family, and with two of us having the same birthday, March 8 is always a big day on the Smith family calendar of events. In general, marking two birthdays on the same day leads to the nice sort of flowing, week-long celebration necessary to ensure that special attention is meted out to all deserving parties: today we have your birthday dinner, tomorrow we will open everybody’s presents, the next day we will have your birthday dinner, etc.

The birthday mechanics this year are different since Katelin is away at school today and won’t be home until Saturday, so Marcia and I get to enjoy her special day in our two-person relationship mode, which grows richer and deeper and more profound as time passes. (Next month marks the 20th anniversary of our first meeting, another amazing milestone). I’ve spent most of those years periodically trying to capture just how important she is to me in words, but as glib and poetically-minded as I am, the English language ultimately fails in this regard.

Suffice to say that I bask in her presence, which I have always been able to feel in palpable, tangible, sensory ways. She moves and it moves me. She illuminates me. She’s the smartest, wisest person I know, and I remain blissfully tickled that I get to share so many binding moments with her . . . some profound (the birth of a child, the death of a parent), and some not (sitting on the couch last night laughing so hard at the Borat movie that we could barely breathe).

I’ve always said (and believed) that the two greatest days of my life were the day I married Marcia and the day that Katelin was born. Everything since flows from and is shaped by those two days, and I couldn’t be happier about that. So happy birthday to both my loves today. They mean the world to me.